How Undine Had Come to the Fisherman
N OW when she had gone, both Huldbrand and the fisherman sprang from their seats and were bent on following the angry girl. But before they had reached the cottage door, Undine had long vanished in the darkness without, and not a sound of her light footstep betrayed whither she had gone. Huldbrand looked questioningly at his host. "Perchance," he mused to himself, "this sweet vision, which hath gone back again into the night, is but one of those marvellous shapes which, a short while agone, played their mad tricks upon me in the forest."
But the old man muttered between his teeth: "This is not the first time that she hath treated us thus. Now shall we have aching hearts and sleepless eyes the livelong night; for who knoweth but that she may sometime come to harm, if she remaineth alone in the dark until daylight?"
"Then for God's sake," cried the knight, "let us follow her forthwith!"
"And what would be the use?" returned the old man. "It would be a sin were I to let you pursue the foolish girl in solitude and darkness; while as for me, my old limbs could not catch the runaway, even if we knew whither she had gone."
"Nathless," quoth Huldbrand, "let us at least call after her and beg her to come back;" and eagerly did he raise his voice, "Undine! Undine! Come back!"
But the old man shook his head. "Little good will shouting serve," saith he. "Thou knowest not her perversity." And yet he too could not forbear to call, "Undine! Undine! Come back, I beg you, come back—if only this once!"
It came to pass, however, as the fisherman had surmised. No Undine could be seen or heard, and since the old man could by no means suffer that Huldbrand should go forth alone, they had perforce to return to the cottage. There they found the fire almost extinguished on the hearth, while the old wife, to whom Undine's flight and danger seemed of far smaller moment than they did to her husband, had already retired to rest. The fisherman bestirred himself to blow up the embers, and put fresh wood upon them; and by the light of the kindling flame he sought out a tankard of wine, which he placed between himself and his guest.
"Sir Knight," quoth he, "I perceive that thou too art disturbed about the silly girl. It were better, methinks, that we both should talk and drink and so pass the night, than that we should toss sleeplessly upon our rush mats. Is it not so?"
Huldbrand readily agreed. The fisherman made him take the old housewife's seat of honour, and thereupon they drank and talked as beseemed two honest and worthy men. Howbeit, as often as anything seemed to move before the windows, or even at times when nothing was moving, one of the two would start, and look up and whisper, "She is coming!" And then they would be silent for a space, and when nothing appeared they would shake their heads with a sigh, and resume their talk. Yet, as neither of them could help but think of Undine, naught pleased them better than that the fisherman should tell, and the knight should hear, the story how Undine had first come to the cottage. So the fisherman began, as followeth:
"It may be," saith he, "some fifteen years ago that I was one day passing through that wild forest to sell my fish at the city. As for my wife, she was resting at home, as is her wont; and at that time, I wis, for a happy cause, for God had given us two old people a marvellously fair child. A girl she was; and it had come into our minds whether for the sake of the new comer it might be a wiser course to leave this beautiful home, and seek a more habitable spot in which to bring up our treasure. Poor folk, as thou dost know, Sir Knight, have not always full liberty in such cases; but, Heaven helping, each must do as he can. Now the matter somewhat troubled me, as I went along, for this slip of land was dear to me, and I bethought me with a shudder amid the noise and brawls of the city, how it might come to pass that in such a bustle, or in some scene not much quieter, I should have perforce to take up my abode. Nathless, no murmur against the good God passed my lips. Nay, I thanked him in secret for my new-born babe. Nor yet can I say that aught befell me, either going or returning, out of the common way. At that time nothing had I seen of the marvels and portents of the wood. The Lord was ever with me in its mysterious shades."
At that he lifted his cap reverently from his bald head, and stayed for a while musing with prayerful thoughts. Then, covering himself once more, he went on as followeth:
"Alack," saith he, "on this side of the forest a great sorrow awaited me. With tears in her eyes, and all clad in mourning, my wife came to meet me. 'O gracious God,' I sobbed, 'where is our child?'
"We entered the cottage together, weeping silently. And then, when I had looked round for the little corpse and found it not, I learnt all that had chanced. My wife had sat her down with the child by the edge of the lake. Right happily was she playing with it, and void of all fear, when on a sudden the little one bent forward, as though she had seen something marvellously fair beneath the waves. My wife saw her laugh, the dear angel, and put forth her little hands: and in a moment she had sprung out of her arms and disappeared beneath the glittering mirror of the lake. Anxiously and long did I seek for our lost one; but it was all in vain. No trace of her was to be found.
"That selfsame evening we were sitting, childless and alone, in the cottage. Neither had any pleasure in talk, nor indeed would our tears have allowed it. It seemed better to gaze into the fire and utter never a word. On a sudden, something rustled outside the door, which straightway opened; and lo! a beautiful little girl, clad in rich garments, stood there on the threshold, smiling at us.
Marvellously astonied were we; as for me, I wist not whether it might be illusion or reality on which I gazed. But I saw the water dripping from her golden hair and her rich garment, and methought the pretty child had been lying in the water and needed our help. 'Good wife,' said I, 'no one hath been able to save our dear one; let us, at least, do for others what would have been so blessed a boon for ourselves.' So we took the little one and undressed her, put her to bed and gave her something warm; but she, meanwhile, spoke not a word. Only she smiled upon us with eyes full of the colour of lake and sky.
"Next morning we saw at once that she had taken no hurt from her wetting, and methought I should ask her about her parents, and by what odd chance she had come hither. But full strange and confused was the account that she gave. Far away from here must she have been born; for, during these fifteen years past, not a word have I learnt of her parentage. Moreover, both then and since, her talk has been of such strange things that, for aught we can tell, she may have dropped down to us from the moon! Golden castles, crystal domes—of such does she prattle, and I know not what marvels beside. The simplest and clearest tale she tells is that, being out with her mother on the great lake she fell into the water, and that she only came to her senses here under the trees, when she found herself with joy on this right happy shore.
"Certès, we have had our fill of misgiving and perplexities. It was our mind forthwith to keep the child we had found, and to bring her up in the place of our lost darling; but who could reveal to us whether she had been baptized or no? On this matter she had naught to tell us. When we questioned her, it was her wont to answer that she knew full well that she was created for God's praise and glory, and that whatever might appertain to God's praise and glory she was well content should be done to her.
"Now it seemed to my wife and to me that, an she had
not been baptized, there was no time for delay;
whereas, an she had, we could not repeat a good thing
too often. So, thinking it out, we sought for a good
name for the child, for we were often at a loss what to
call her. And, as we pondered, it seemed that Dorothea
might be the best name, for I had heard that it
signifieth a gift of God, and full sure had she been
sent to us by God as a gift and comfort in our woe. But
she would not hear of this; it irked her sore; Undine,
she said, her parents had named her, and Undine she
still would be. Now this appeared to me to be but a
heathenish name, not to be found in any calendar; and
for this reason I took counsel of a priest in the city.
He approved the name no better than I did: but yet at
my prayer he came with me through the forest in order
to perform the rite
of baptism here in my cottage. So
prettily clad was the little one, so sweetly did she
bear herself, that she at once won the priest's heart.
With such soft speech and cozening words did she
flatter him, using the while such merry mockery, that
he could remember none of the grave arguments he
thought to use against the name Undine. Undine,
therefore, was she baptized; and while the ceremony
went on she held herself with much simplicity and
sweetness, and seemed to have forgotten all the wild
and untamed restlessness of her daily behaviour. For
indeed, Sir Knight, my wife was wholly in the right
when she told you that she hath been most difficult to
bear with. If I were to
And here the knight stayed the fisherman's talk. He would fain call his notice to a sound of rushing waters which ever and anon had caught his ear while the old man rambled on. Now the water seemed to burst against the cottage window with redoubled force, and both sprang to the door. There, by the light of the lately risen moon, they saw the brook, which came from the forest, wildly overflowing its banks, and sweeping away stones and tree-trunks in its impetuous course. The storm, as if awakened by the tumult, broke furiously from the clouds that passed swiftly over the moon: the lake howled under the mad buffet of the wind: the trees of the little peninsula groaned from root to topmost bough, and bent dizzily over the surging waters.
"Undine! For Heaven's sake, Undine!" cried the two men in terror. Not a word came back in answer, and without further thought they rushed out of the cottage, one in this direction, the other in that, searching and calling for Undine.